Paradoxical Spaces

The idea of “negative space” is essential to British artist Oliver Beer, whose work confronts the audience with what is not there, and, through revealing absences, has the somewhat paradoxical effect of highlighting the emotional value that we invest in objects. In his first show at Ikon since 2011, Beer presents a series of new and recent pieces including some specially commissioned for the exhibition.

A recent interest is the creation of vessels, often from ceramics, which become idiosyncratic musical instruments as the empty space within resonates in response to a particular musical note, and, when amplified with microphones and sound systems, creates a soundscape of harmonics feeding back – the sound of an absence singing. In Silence Is Golden – a new work for Ikon – among a series of these musical objects are three glass spheres, each holding an actual-size golden model of the tiny bones of the inner ear that make hearing possible, but sealed silently inside crystal.

One of the centrepieces of the exhibition is another commission for Ikon. I Wan’na be Like You (2016) is a “re-animation” of a scene from Walt Disney’s Jungle Book. Beer invited 2,500 local school children, aged  from early years until the age of 13, to join in, drawing film stills which are arranged in order of their age, so that the animation style becomes increasingly “grown up” as the scene unfolds. Frame by frame the scribbles of infants progressively give way to the increasingly lucid drawings of children and then adolescents. Here, the artist uses a time-based medium to demonstrate the inexorable passage of time central to the human condition.

Family relationships recur throughout the work on display, such as Oma’s Kitchen Floor (2008) a wall-mounted section of linoleum, taken from his grandmother’s kitchen. The human traces left by decades of his grandmother’s feet moving across the linoleum and wearing down its pattern are revealed as a picture built up over 40 years through half-a-lifetime of movement.  Meanwhile, one of several video works, Mum’s Continuous Note (2013), is both a touching portrait of Beer’s mother and a celebration of sound, as she appears to be singing a single note for three minutes without drawing breath, while creating harmonies on a blue guitar.

Oliver Beer, 15 March – 4 June, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham. For more information:

1. Oliver Beer, Tristan Ensemble (2015). Live sound installation based on tuning the harmonics of antiquities from the collection of Robert Wilson. Installation view, Watermill Center, New York. Image © the artist.